In recent years, the Preakness has become the neglected middle child of the Triple Crown slate, with many trainers of top contenders opting not to take their horses to Pimlico Race Course to challenge the Derby champion. Instead, they've waited and brought fresh horses to the Belmont Stakes.
But that dynamic could change in 2015 with the burgeoning rivalry between a trio of California horses that dominated Saturday's 141st running of the Derby. It's a story full of rich plots, from the intra-barn competition between American Pharoah and Dortmund — both trained by Bob Baffert — to Firing Line's ongoing quest to finish first against Baffert's stars.
"I think it's what the game's all about, really," said Firing Line's trainer, Simon Callaghan. "This is what people love to see in the sport, and us, as racing fans, we love to see it, as well. So, I think it'll be a great thing."
The last time the top three Derby finishers ran in the Preakness was 2009.
Baffert was pleased with the way American Pharoah and Dortmund bounced back the morning after the Derby. Callaghan seemed equally confident in his horse's resilience.
"You better get used to this," Baffert said to American Pharoah as he led the champion to pose for a cluster of photographers and to accept pats on the head from early-rising fans.
Baffert said American Pharoah struggled initially with the crush of admirers as he walked from his barn to the paddock before the Derby. His horse was rattled enough that the experience might have sapped some of his energy for the race.
"He lost it a little bit," Baffert said. "Something set him off, and he drug the groom right from the moment they started walking. … I think it took a little out of him, the walk up there yesterday."
As well as American Pharoah ran against the best competition he'd faced, he also had to grind in a way he never had, with jockey Victor Espinoza hitting him repeatedly down the stretch. The bay colt displayed his toughness as much as the brilliant speed that had onlookers raving in the weeks before the Derby.
Baffert celebrated the victory with dinner at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, his son, Bode's, favorite, and then watched the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight with the family of American Pharoah's owner, Ahmed Zayat.
The Hall of Fame trainer thought his other horse might win as he watched Dortmund hold a lead down the backstretch before fading slightly. He'll discuss the towering chestnut's future with owner Kaleem Shah. "I'm sure he's going to want a little revenge," Baffert said. "His horse ran a really good race."
Another factor looming for the Preakness is the recent civil unrest in Baltimore, but the connections of the top three Derby finishers expressed no reservations about making the trip.
"People settle down, and things get worked out," said Baffert, who lived and trained through the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. "Life still goes on."
Maryland Jockey Club general manager Sal Sinatra said he doesn't expect changes to be made to the Preakness schedule because of the protests.
"We're going to go there and try to win," said Firing Line's owner, Arnold Zetcher, former CEO of the women's clothing brand Talbots. "It's the Triple Crown, and it's exciting."
Though Firing Line twice finished behind Dortmund in prep races, Callaghan believes his horse and American Pharoah are the two best 3-year-olds. With Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens aboard, Firing Line pushed the prerace favorite all the way to the wire, losing by less than a length.
"He definitely showed us it's going to be really close," Callaghan said of his colt. "I don't think anyone can confidently say they're by far the best."
It was the first Derby for Callaghan, a 32-year-old Englishman, but he felt certain his horse would've won in many previous years.
Other possible Preakness entries include International Star, a late scratch from the Derby; Bodhisattva, winner of the April 18 Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico; Divining Rod, winner of the April 11 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland; and Danzig Moon. Trainer Todd Pletcher's duo of Competitive Edge and Stanford, another Derby scratch, are also possibilities.
Some other top Derby contenders were doubtful for the Preakness as of Sunday morning.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he'd consult with owners before declaring fourth-place finisher Frosted out of the Preakness, but he'd said all week a trip to Baltimore would be unlikely if Frosted didn't win the Derby.
"It's just that we're not used to running back in two weeks," he said. "It would be doubtful."
McLaughlin was also one of the few horsemen to express open concerns about the unrest in Baltimore.
"Right now, in 2015, the worry is the riots and all the stuff going on in Baltimore," he said. "Let's hope that gets behind us, because that could be tough. You worry. I'm watching CNN. I don't think it's close by, but the problem is that, if they're looking to protest, they'll go to a day where there's 100,000 people."
Pletcher left Louisville Saturday night after saddling three horses, including Carpe Diem and Materiality, in the Derby. But he'd made it clear during the week that if none of the three won, he'd likely default to his usual practice of having them skip the Preakness.
"Belmont's our home track and we've done pretty well in the Belmont Stakes," he said. "We've done well by either not running in the Derby … or taking the five weeks. It seems to work well for us. If there were a month or five weeks between the Derby and the Preakness, I'm sure we'd probably run more in the Preakness."
Baffert, meanwhile, is one of the Preakness' biggest fans. He's a five-time winner who said the second leg of the Triple Crown is generally the easiest and most fun. He spoke Sunday of the excruciating pressure he felt to win his fourth Derby given the rare talent of American Pharoah and Dortmund.
"It was a huge sigh of relief," he said. "I needed to win. This was, to me, I might never have another chance like this. … Guys don't have two horses like this."
He was wary of the Triple Crown talk that had already begun to build. Baffert knows people will spend the next two weeks speculating about American Pharoah as a possible successor to Affirmed, the last to pull it off in 1978.
"I don't even think about that yet," he said Sunday.
He took Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem to Belmont with Triple Crowns on the line. "That's when you see your horse, it wears on them," he said.
American Pharoah will stay at Churchill Downs this week and likely fly to Baltimore the Wednesday before the Preakness. After his trial by fire in Kentucky, he'll arrive as more than just a magnificent physical package.
"He was just born with that talent," Baffert said. "He has that long stride. He's quick. He's got a really good mind, and he floats over the ground. He's just different. … But what we saw yesterday is he's not one-dimensional."